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Jeff Sessions Takes Strong Anti-Immigration Views To Justice Department


Today, Jeff Sessions was sworn in as America's new attorney general.


JEFF SESSIONS: I, Jeff Sessions, do solemnly swear...

SIEGEL: In remarks after his swearing-in, Sessions indicated where he would lead the department in terms of immigration.


SESSION: We need a lawful system of immigration - one that serves the interests of the people of the United States. That's not wrong. That's not immoral. That's not indecent. We admit a million people a year - plus - lawfully. We need to end this lawlessness that threatens the public safety, pulls down wages of working Americans.

SIEGEL: For more on Jeff Sessions' views on immigration and what he can do now as the head of the Justice Department, we're joined by Brian Bennett. He's a reporter for The Los Angeles Times. He, until recently, covered immigration. He now covers the White House. Welcome to the program.

BRIAN BENNETT: Happy to be on the show.

SIEGEL: Jeff Sessions speaks of a lawful system of immigration. What does he want exactly?

BENNETT: He wants to see more people deported. And he wants the people who are in the country currently who are here illegally or legally who have committed crimes - even minor crimes - to be removed.

SIEGEL: When he's talking about people who might be removed, is he including people who are here on green cards - people who are in the country legally?

BENNETT: Well, the Trump administration has increased dramatically the types of people who would be considered a priority for deportation. So even people who are here on a green card, for example, but have committed some minor crimes - the Trump administration has said that they want to try to deport some of those people, as well.

SIEGEL: I mean, Sessions' interest goes beyond removing criminals or dangerous people. In 2015, he co-authored a paper on immigration in which he argued that the big problem here is that unemployment among native-born Americans is higher than it is among foreign-born people living in the United States. He claims immigration - legal and illegal - is bad for the economy, for native-born Americans.

BENNETT: In the big picture, Jeff Sessions has long believed that the U.S. should reduce its foreign-born population and has advocated for reducing legal immigration for that reason.

SIEGEL: And is this mainstream Republican thought on immigration? Is it Planet Sessions? What would you say?

BENNETT: For a long time, it's really been a fringe of the Republican Party, especially the last 10 years, that embrace this idea. But now we have Trump elected president, and he campaigned on a platform to not only reduce illegal immigration, but also reduce legal immigration. For a long time, that's been a no-go zone, particularly among GOP senators, but we're going to have to see if the broader Republican Party embraces these much more restrictionist ideas than they have in the past.

SIEGEL: Now, the Department of Homeland Security has the main responsibility for enforcing immigration laws. What could Sessions actually do as the head of the Justice Department to advance his ideas?

BENNETT: So there's quite a bit that happens in the Justice Department that touches immigration. One thing is that Sessions will be in charge of all the immigration courts. And immigration judges are not actual judges. They are Department of Justice lawyers. And he can have a lot of influence on who's hired to fill new positions on the courts and also instructions that go to those lawyers and how to read the law when it comes to adjudicating who gets deported.

SIEGEL: Would he have a role in reviewing President Obama's DACA program - Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals - for the so-called Dreamers?

BENNETT: Well, certainly, the Office of Legal Counsel that would fall under him may be asked to give a different interpretation of the legality of DACA. He's long advocated for the repeal of DACA, so it's something that I imagine he would have his Department of Justice lawyers look at when he gets there.

SIEGEL: And do it in Trump's executive actions related to immigration lay the groundwork for Sessions to implement any of them at Justice?

BENNETT: They do. A couple of other things that Trump has done that sessions would be looking at - one, he'd probably increase the number of prosecutions for low-level immigration violations, like entry without inspection, for example. And also, when it comes to sanctuary cities, the Department of Justice controls a lot of grant money that goes to cities - reimbursements for people held in jails, for example, for federal agencies, as well as grant monies that go to local police departments. And Sessions, as attorney general, could very well take a look at those grant programs and decide that he wanted to find a way to cut off cities that don't comply with immigration officials.

SIEGEL: Brian Bennett covers the White House for The Los Angeles Times. Thanks for joining us once again.

BENNETT: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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